Nissan minivan Quest

Photos and Videos: 2009 Nissan Quest Van/Minivan Photos - Kelley

Guess what? Minivans are still uncool. Automakers know this. Even the latest ads for the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna acknowledge the squareness of the segment. Sales have stabilized at about 500, 000 units per year since tragically hip moms and dads fled to crossovers. As a mature segment with little potential for growth, minivans are getting comfortable with their squareness. For evidence, we direct your attention to the new Nissan Quest, which not only acknowledges its one-box silhouette but drapes a metaphorical trench coat over the whole thing.

So minivans are cool with being uncool. Can we move on? The premise remains the same as before: Maximize people and cargo space, and forget about the styling. Driving dynamics get second billing. The point is to get you and your kids (or, for aging boomers, your dogs) to and from every destination with the least amount of hassle and the most comfort.

The newest in our assembled quartet is the Nissan Quest, back after a two-year hiatus. Now based on the company’s D platform (shared with the Altima, Maxima, and Murano), the Quest is similar to the Japanese-market Elgrand. For 2011, the Chrysler Town & Country (and its sibling, the Dodge Grand Caravan) gets freshened exterior and interior styling, a retuned suspension, and—most important—a new 283-hp V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic, which replaces all three previous powertrain offerings.

The Odyssey and the Sienna are also new for the 2011 model year, but both offer carry-over engines lashed to new six-speed automatics (available only in Touring trim on the Honda).

There’s a lot of common ground among this set. All four are powered by 24-valve V-6 engines, with only 35 horsepower separating the strongest (Chrysler) from the weakest (Honda). In the top-of-the-line trims we specified for our test group, each minivan comes with power side doors and a power rear hatch. They all offer some sort of flat load floor when the seats are folded and/or removed.

It’s worth noting that although the vans tested here all ring in at about $40, 000, each can be had for closer to $30, 000. The price of the Sienna, the highest in this test, drops as low as $25, 370 for a base four-cylinder model.

The Sienna is a perfect example of the—dare we say—pleasures of owning a minivan. A flat, wide floor underneath the driver’s seat makes getting in and out easy. The interior boasts two glove boxes, plus a handy storage cubby on the floor between the instrument panel and the center console in which to store your purse—sorry, “European man-satchel.” The center console deploys rearward to dispatch two cup holders for second-row passengers. And in our Limited model, the second-row residents get captain’s chairs with slide-out leg rests. They even almost work. To fully extend, the second row needs to slide completely back, obliterating third-row leg space. Even then, the leg extensions accommodate only the shorter lower limbs of children. But we like the idea. The same goes for the power-folding third row, which won’t work if the second row is too far aft. We expect better execution from Toyota.

Kudos also go to the Sienna’s interior space, which is the largest in nearly every category. But with the exception of a best-in-test, 177-foot braking result, the Toyota is at or below average in most perform­ance categories. That backs up our overall impression of the Sienna, which is unremarkable. On paper, everything looks good, but in person and behind the wheel, the Sienna comes off as milquetoast. In that respect, the Sienna is the Camry of minivans. Like its sedan counterpart, it’s not that there is anything wrong with the Sienna—it’s just that it doesn’t make us care about what’s right.

The Quest takes a different approach to seat acrobatics than the other three vans do. Open the rear hatch, and the floor is level with the bumper; cargo stows below a removable panel. The third-row seats fold forward onto the seat cushions, level with the false floor and leaving the rearmost luggage area intact; the other minivans flop the seats backward into the cargo pit. The compromise is a higher load floor—the second-row seats fold and lower themselves to make for a flat cargo area—and less storage space: 19 fewer cubic feet behind the second row and 36 fewer with everything folded versus the next-biggest in­teri­or of the Chrysler. If you’re looking to fit Neil Peart’s drum kit into the Quest, you might be short on storage, but we think the ability to fold the third row without moving any cargo will find supporters.

We were also impressed with the Quest’s smooth ride, which is almost limo-like. The Nissan’s first-place, 55.6-mph performance in the emergency-lane-change maneuver is more the result of an effective stability-control system that keeps the Quest going where it’s pointed than any handling prowess. Through corners, it feels like the front and rear suspensions were tuned for different vehicles. But going back to minivan priorities, consider the 36.7-foot turning ­circle, which is slightly better than the Sienna’s, equal to the Odyssey’s, and 2.4 feet tighter than the Chrysler’s.

Another plus for the Quest is the familiar VQ engine, making 260 horsepower in this application. Unlike the 3.7-liter variant, the 3.5-liter is smooth in the Quest, and the continuously  variable automatic responds quickly and without the usual drone we’ve come to expect from these transmissions. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate to quick numbers at the track, where the Quest was slowest to 60 mph. The CVT is also frustrating; it allows the engine to rev for a second when you are pulling into traffic.

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